Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Making of the Cult Classic "Jack-O" : A Truly Scary Tale for Halloween

A Guest Blog Post
Steve Latshaw

"We're going to make another movie. It's called Jack-O-Lantern."

My producing partner, Patrick Moran, clicked the line on the other end of the phone.

"OK. I'll bite,” he said. “Tell me more." Moran was my partner in crime. Together we'd been cranking out low budget horror movies in Orlando, Florida, shooting on weekends. Pat wrote, produced and acted. I co-produced and directed. Sometimes I helped write. These were real movies. Full length features, in color and in focus and available in your neighborhood video store.

It was the fall of 1994 and we'd done three since the summer of '91. The first, a horror comedy about a bulimic vampire, called Vampire Trailer Park, had finally been picked up by a Swedish distributor (only the Swedes, it seems, "got" the movie). The last two had been done for famed and prolific Hollywood independent producer Fred Olen Ray. Fred had gotten his start in Florida, too. And after directing a staggering number of movies, he'd become a sort of latter day Roger Corman, financing features for aspiring filmmakers, usually in the action, Sci Fi or horror field, and under his strict commercial guidelines.

It was like film school, plus he gave us the money to make movies! On actual motion picture film. And with real "name" Hollywood actors. All we had to do was turn in a finished movie.

"Oh, one more thing," Fred used to say. "The movies. They have to be good."

And so far, they had been. We'd made Dark Universe for Fred, with Joe Estevez. Joe was great. His name value was that he was a dead ringer for his brother, Martin Sheen. Dark Universe had originally been called Swamp Monster, and was about an astronaut in space who mutates into an alien-type creature, then crash-lands his shuttle in the Florida everglades, has flashbacks and kills a bunch of people.

We shot that one in twelve days (on weekends) plus a couple of second unit "pick-up" days, with what was becoming our Florida stock company of actors and crew: . Bentley Tittle, Paul Sanders, Blake Pickett, John Maynard, Tom Ferguson, Max "Bee Man" Beck (our Director of Photography and camera operator who was called “Bee Man" because he used to appear on the David Letterman show with a beard of bees) and Rich Davis, another Director of Photography/Steadicam Operator/Gaffer, who is now an Emmy Award-winning cameraman and a director, working steadily in network TV.

Curb Entertainment picked up Dark Universe for distribution and by the time the dust settled we'd grossed ten times our negative cost. This "little film that could" was released on video, laserdisc and played on Showtime, Cinemax and Turner. We had a hit.

We struck gold again with our next effort, Biohazard--The Alien Force. A little more money (not much more--these films were made for about 1% of the cost of an average TV movie) and a slightly longer shooting schedule resulting in what, for us, was an action-packed-mutated-creature-on-the-loose epic with locations as diverse as the fly-in airport community in Daytona Beach (where John Travolta lived at the time) and the Universal Studios back lot. We added more actors to our stock company--Susan Fronsoe, Steve Zurk, Maddisen Krowne—and secured the services of name actor Chris Mitchum to play the villain. I got the best producer notes I'd ever received from Fred on that one. His notes, after screening my first cut, always brief and to the point, were "Good job. Lock it." Which means no changes. And it was another hit.

So now we were back in business and this time, it would prove to be a major challenge. We were going to do Jack-O-Lantern, a supernatural horror thriller, new genre for us. And we'd be under the gun, forced to complete the film on a hard and fast deadline.

It was then November 1994 and the film had to be in video stories by Halloween 1995. And at that time, it took a minimum of six months for a film to hit stores. You had to edit the trailer, do the final sound mix, and in addition there was marketing, artwork, and much more, which meant we had to deliver the picture, finished, by spring 1995. It was going to take at least a month to develop the script, and another month to prep so we couldn't start shooting until February. Oh, and it was all talk show host Phil Donahue's fault.

Phil Donahue?

Exactly. For the 1994/95 season of his, then, highly successful show, Phil had decided to do something a little different. He would devote an entire hour to a "Scream Queen Contest." Celebrity judges (including our own Fred Olen Ray) would audition some young actresses for a part as a Jamie Lee Curtis-style "Scream Queen." The winner would be flown to Florida and appear in our movie. They would tape an "audition episode" then send a crew with her to film her filming with us, then do a follow-up taping where she talked about how it all went.

I was excited, despite the dangers. Fred's original concept for the film was a horror thriller about a little miniature pumpkin man who ran around rooms like a voodoo doll and killed his victims. I began suggesting animation effects, etc., until Fred gently reminded me that the budget would be very low. He confided that the only reason the film was being done was because of the Donahue show.

"If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't be making the movie."

Undaunted, I made the deal. This would be the movie that got Pat Moran and me, finally to Hollywood. And besides, Fred was providing something better than big money. He was providing big stars. Our little movie would have more stars than anything we'd done before.

So back to Pat. Always a realist, he asks me about the stars. I grinned. "Fred is going to fly down Linnea Quigley for three days!" Pat was excited. We loved Linnea, a genuine Scream Queen from such big hits as; Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Creeps, Creepazoids, Sorority Babes in the Slime Ball Bowl-a-Rama, Nightmare Sisters, and Fred's own Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. She was also a fine actress and light comedian. A nice girl. And gorgeous.

Our movie centered around an all-American family and their young boy, haunted by this century-old demonic, tiny, pumpkin man. My son Ryan would play the little boy. Linnea would play his babysitter. So he'd get to do most of his scenes with this talented beauty.

Pat grins. "And the other stars? Who are they?"

I puffed myself up, triumphantly. Pat and I were big fans of classic horror and old Hollywood. I announced the next two names. "John Carradine! And Cameron Mitchell!"

Pat didn't seem to be excited.

"Come on, Pat! John Carradine? He played in the Universal horror thrillers. He was better than Lugosi. He was the huntsman in Bride of Frankenstein. Worked for John Ford. Did all those great movies for Monogram and PRC. And Cameron Mitchell is an Academy Award-winning actor!"

Pat nods. "Yeah. But they're both dead."

Well, okay, so they were. Carradine had died in Spain, back in 1988. Mr. Mitchell had passed away in the summer of 1994, just a few months earlier. But both men had been close friends of Fred Ray and Fred would periodically bring them into the studio and pay them a tidy sum to shoot some isolated scenes.

Some of this footage would find its way into Fred movies like Star Slammer or Alien Within. We would be receiving the last of the footage. Mitchell's scenes consisted of him addressing the camera, smoking a cigarette and talking about "strange tales." So in our movie, which took place during Halloween, he would become a TV horror host, introducing a marathon of horror movies. My son Ryan's character was also a horror movie fan, so he would be watching Cameron Mitchell on screen, in effect, playing his scenes with the great actor.

As for John Carradine, Fred had leftover footage of this famous character actor from the mid 1980s. Originally filmed for an unfinished project called Judge Death, the Carradine footage consisted of some silent shots of the great old actor in a wizard outfit, sitting in a clearing, in the woods. We also had some isolated dialog scraps, called "wild lines," of Carradine spouting scary, menacing threats and ominous predictions. We'd make Carradine the reincarnated spirit of an old demon worshipper who has revived the evil Jack-O-Lantern. The family, and my son Ryan, would play all their scenes with him.

For reversals over Carradine's shoulder, shooting back at the live actors, we'd have to put an actor in a robe, dressed just like Mr. Carradine. We'd also double Carradine in the wide shots (since all we had were Carradine close-ups). We'd also pepper those wild lines through the film and put framed pictures of Carradine in various shots (and his portrait in the family Bible) just to keep reminding the audience he was in the movie.

Pat shook his head. "It's Ed Wood."

He was right. Director Ed Wood had done the same thing in Plan 9 From Outer Space--a production often called the worst film ever made. He had some old footage of Bela Lugosi and used it after Lugosi’s death in his movie, calling it: "Bela Lugosi's last and greatest film!" Wood then put his chiropractor--who looked nothing like Lugosi--in a robe to double Lugosi in the long shots. It was all immortalized in Tim Burton's movie Ed Wood. Now we were doing it, too. A point echoed some months later when Fred Ray, interviewed for a national horror movie magazine, referred to our movie as "Plan 9 From Out of State."

And so it began. Making a movie about Halloween in the winter and spring. In Florida. We'd need pumpkins. So we started buying, begging and borrowing, any pumpkins we could find. It was long past Halloween so they were tough to find. And most we found were either rotten or would be soon. But there was a cure for that. Somebody told me if you shellacked them, they'd hold. Just don't poke them or they explode. And rotten pumpkins smell really bad. Within weeks my garage began to fill up with old pumpkins. And yes, some of them blew.

Script-wise, we hit a wall. As I said, Fred had wanted a little tiny pumpkin man. But the first draft script didn't fit the bill. Fred now decided on a full-sized pumpkin man, something a bit easier to shoot than a midget demon. This would be a guy in a costume, with an outfit like the headless horseman: horrible, with claws and a scary pumpkin head with eyes that lit up.

This would be the latest new terror creation—the Jack-O-Lantern--a demonic, man-sized being who swirled a mean scythe and liked to lop peoples’ heads off. Pat went to work on the new draft of the script, probably not encouraged by the fact that he'd also have to play the Jack-O-Lantern, trying to see through those flashing eyes in the pumpkin head as he slashed at our actors and crew with that blood-soaked blade.

Pat's wife Cathy joined the cast. An extremely talented actress, she played a witch in our film--a "good" witch who has come to warn young Ryan about the impending arrival of the Jack-O-Lantern (which he is already aware of thanks to some scary dreams). Cathy struck the right balance of mystery and empathy with the part and, together with the comic skills of Maddisen Krowne, rounded out our cast.

February hit. Our first weekend was up and rolling. The Donohue crew had arrived with their contest winner, a New York actress named Kelly Lacy. And so, production began.

The shoot itself went surprisingly well, at first. Our crew always worked quickly, and we burned through the pages. And then things began to slow, as if we were swimming in molasses. Some of my memories:

--Donahue star Kelly Lacy was very good on screen. And quite the trooper. No complaints about this New Yorker, always eager to do anything we asked. Apparently she made a poor impression on our costume designer, who listed a series of complaints, from Kelly, about wardrobe. I sided with Kelly, which may be why I am now divorced all these years later. That costume designer was my wife, later to become my ex. As for Kelly, we lost touch. I hope she is well. She had to do the goriest death scene I ever shot: chased by the pumpkin man through a swamp, falling to her knees in twelve inches of cold water and getting her throat slashed by the creature's scythe.

--Our main lighting gaffer, Roy Webb, worked days for a major lighting company, supplying gear for various Florida productions and events. Most of our shoots were at night. I remember Roy working weekend after weekend, with no sleep, barely on his feet, sometimes in tears due to the stress. And Roy is a big tough guy.

--We shot most of the film in my neighborhood, in Apopka, Florida. We covered yards and sidewalks up and down the street with rotten pumpkins. Stole shots of our kid actors in front of a local school bus, and used my own home as the home (interior and exterior) of our movie family. By the end of too many night shoots, our neighbors were really mad at us, one night even forcing us to move the production indoors for interior scenes. Imagine that.

Steve Latshaw (at left) directs scenes for Jack-O in Apopka, Florida, 1995.

--The teddy bear clutched by Ryan as he falls asleep (only to be tormented by nightmares of John Carradine) was the same teddy bear I had as a child. This is not really relevant to the story, though perhaps its presence in the film is an indication of how deeply disturbed I might really be.

--A brutal battle between Jack-O-Lantern and Linnea Quigley (who was trying to save young Ryan from the creature) was shot at our neighborhood playground. A long, cold and windy night, with behind-the-scenes footage of same on our tenth anniversary DVD.

Ryan Latshaw, at right, with Linnea Quigley and the crew on the Jack-O set.

--Linnea Quigley was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. She was beautiful, friendly, always laughing, and kept the crew in very high spirits for the three days she worked. Part of the deal with Jack-O-Latern was that it had to have an "R" rating. So we had to do a nude shower scene with Linnea (only Linnea was nude: unfortunately we didn't all get naked with her). Apart from that, some other brief nudity of another character and some gore, this film is almost a family movie. And therein, I think, lies its charm. No pretension: just an old fashioned scary fable.

Happy memories.

--We have footage somewhere of actor Tom Ferguson, in robe, doubling for the late John Carradine, prancing around with a cape covering his face, just like Bela Lugosi's chiropractor in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

--We shot much of the film in the woods on the estate of actor James Best (Dukes of Hazzard's Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane), in Ocoee, Florida.

--Helen Keeling, playing the wife of a local neighbor in the film, was an extremely talented English actress and terrific in our film. Her character dies quite unusually--electrocuted by a toaster--while her husband is simultaneously gutted by the Jack-O-Lantern just outside. Recently, a horror movie web site called this sequence the "greatest death scene in Hollywood history."

--Late in their careers, both John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell were known for appearing in an endless array of low budget horror, Sci Fi, and action movies. Many of these movies were awful, with these two great actors hired to do cameos so the producers could take advantage of their name value. One day on our set, his wry smile perfectly in place, Pat Moran pulled me aside and showed me a book called The Guide to Splatter Films, Volume 2. In it was a list: "Top Ten Reasons You Know This Horror Film is a Piece of Sh-t." And in this book, near the bottom of this top ten list, reason three was: "One of the stars is John Carradine." Above it, reason five: "One of the stars is Cameron Mitchell." We had a two-fer. Hmmm. I'd like to think that means the negatives cancelled each other out.

--Son Ryan endured all sorts of trials and tribulations while making the film. But the toughest thing was crawling through dirt. In the film, the creature buries him. We rigged up a fake section of ground, mounted on painter's horses, a section of plastic covered by dirt with a hole in the middle that he could crawl up through. Easy and safe. But of all the stuff we asked him to do this was the one thing he wouldn't. Scared to death. And now he's a proud and tough Petty Officer (3rd Class) in the U.S. Coast Guard! I used to embarrass Ryan with the DVD: every time he had a new girlfriend, I'd wave the disc and ask the girl if she knew Ryan was a movie star. Of course, he'd have to show the movie to the girl, and it was always a hit. Now he's grown up and married and with a young son of his own. He asked me to send him a DVD. He thought his son might like to see it one day. That made me feel real good.

--Costume Designer Patricia McKiou had the unenviable task of manhandling Halloween street extras for the Halloween night scenes, as well as supplying and supervising all their costumes.

--The entire shoot seemed to go on forever, an unending series of two and three-day weekends, trying to fake Halloween in the cold winter and warm spring of 1995. And all the while, the LA office was pressing us to wrap because of the release schedule. And we were still far behind. And over budget. We had a set budget for the picture, per the contract. Anything else came out of our pockets. And it did. By the end of March we were quite a few thousand in the hole.

I turned in my cut to Fred in early April. The response was not: "Good job. Lock it." We had some problems: individual scenes were good but, overall, it didn't hold together as a film. Not enough suspense. Not enough murder and mayhem. Generously, Fred hired an editor back in Los Angeles to do a cut. It was better, but still missing a lot of stuff. And so we began a series of pickup days, shooting additional sequences, additional Jack-O-Lantern attacks, etc. We shot additional dialog and linking footage with Cathy Moran's character, Ryan's character and the family, trying to fill in missing plot points.

Everybody came back dutifully for reshoots, though in some cases hair styles had changed, actors who'd believed they were wrapped had gotten cuts or trims. This is particularly obvious in some of Gary Doles' scenes. Gary played Ryan's father.

One of the reshoot sequences involved a cable installer, out in a bucket truck at night, trying to repair some cable lines. We had a truck but no Cable Guy. So the director—that would be me—suited up, rode that bucket truck and tried to rescue fair maiden Rachel Carter from the Jack-O-Lantern. I get my throat cut for my trouble. But I worked cheap, so what the heck.

At long last the film was finished. I'd put $15,000 of my own money into the production but, I was lucky. I got it back. We ended up with another hit on our hands.

We made all the deadlines and our picture hit video stores in mid October 1995, with an all-star cast. In addition to Ryan, Cathy, Pat, Maddisen, Gary and Rachel, our little movie starred the great John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell in their final roles, plus Scream Queen Linnea Quigley and a special guest appearances from another famed Scream Queen Brinke Stevens, appearing in footage from an unfinised Fred Ray movie called The Coven. Brinke--herself an accomplished actress and marine biologist--came in and did some voice over dialog to expand her part. We also had a bit from Dawn Wildsmith, co-star of the David Carradine action thriller Warlords.

Andrew Stevens' company Royal Oaks handled distribution for Jack-O-Lantern as its first film. And, at a time when the U.S. home video market was collapsing, the movie sold over 15,000 units nationwide, unheard of video numbers for low budget horror in 1995. The film also had a title change, which, somehow, transformed it and helped to give it the cult status it has today.

During production, I was sending video dailies and rough scene edits back to Hollywood so Andrew Stevens' team could edit a promotional trailer. To save time, I labeled the tapes "Jack-O Dailies." Andrew loved the name Jack-O and that became the new title (except on pay TV and overseas, where it still plays as Jack-O-Lantern.)

It was the movie that started as an afterthought, a reason to do a special edition of the Phil Donahue Show. It was shot on an incredibly low budget--too low to make a "great" or even "really good" movie. Our only hope was to make something entertainining. It went over schedule and over budget and there were times when we never thought we'd finish.

But we did and the movie went on to cult status. It was one of the first movies to hit DVD--and a 2004 "10th Anniversary Edition" also did very well. If you can find it, that's the disc to get. It's packed with "rare footage", outtakes, behind-the-scenes video with Linnea and the cast and crew and a delightful commentary track (if I may say so) provided by Fred Ray and myself.

Like that crazy pumpkin Jack-O, the movie never seems to die, as it keeps getting rediscovered. I'm proud of the film and love the memories associated with making it. And except for that shower scene it's a nice little family picture. With gore, of course. Lots of that.

I went on Google Earth the other day to take another look at the quaint little Central Florida neighborhood where we shot the film. Nothing seems to have changed. The big oak tree is still in the backyard, towering over my old house. The small oak tree where Jack-O lops off the Biker Guy's head. If you find yourself in Central Florida someday, you can visit the location. The address, in Apopka, is 1764 Waterbeach Court. If you sit quietly you may be able to hear the Jack-O fable whispered on the wind:.

"... the pumpkin man will steal your soul... snatch it up... and swallow it whole!"

And, if you happen to see any of my old neighbors, don't tell them why you're there. I think they're still mad at me.

Steve Latshaw
Hollywood, California

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Jack-O said...


I love the post. It's still hard to believe that all this stuff really happened, and that none of it is exaggerated.

I still remember being in Jack-O costume. As co-producer, I was talking to Max and some of the crew about the shooting schedule that night. After I finished, there was a long pause. Finally Max said, "You know, I didn't hear a word you just said. I was distracted by that big flashing pumpkin head of yours."

I also remember really really liking Linnea. I hope she's happy where ever she may be now.

Some young lady did a very good review of JACK-O a few years back. While noting where we screwed up, she also acknowledged some of the things we got right. In her warts and all write up, she really seemed to get what we were trying to do. She said ours was one of the few movies, big budgeted or small, that really captured the spirit of Halloween. Which is cool, since Halloween is still my favorite holiday.

So like I said, I love the post. It's wildly entertaining, and dare I say, heartwarming and a little wistful.

Kind of like the holiday itself.

Pat Moran

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading/following your page.Please keep it coming. Cheers!